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Real estate group hears tough talk from homeless advocates

Monday, March 4, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

As one of the city’s leading advocates for the homeless, Ann Howard knows not to waste an opportunity when she gets in front of a room full of people who can help her cause. So she didn’t mince words last week when she had the attention of hundreds of real estate professionals at the monthly breakfast for the Urban Land Institute Austin.

Asked what the developers, brokers and other real estate professionals could do to help the roughly 2,200 people who are homeless at any one time in Austin, Howard told them to open their doors, their wallets and more.

“If you’re sitting on a building and you’re not going to do anything with it for a few years, let us use it,” said Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

“If you’re developing housing, talk with us and talk to Neighborhood Housing about dedicating some of those units, so once the building is there we have the right to refer clients there to house them. If you’re a property manager, talk with us about how you can work with the owners to create a screening criteria so that people in programs with a high success rate can live in some of those units.”

That housing-first refrain was common during the hourlong panel discussion in which Howard was joined by Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas of Austin, and Justin Newsom, assistant chief of the Austin Police Department.

Quinn spoke to the audience’s fiscal sensibilities, explaining that providing permanent supportive housing and associated services for a homeless person costs just over $17,000 per year, compared to the $220,000 per person per year in public service expenses racked up by extreme cases of the homeless cycling through local emergency rooms and jails.

“For a whole lot more money, we get to leave them on the street,” Quinn said. “For a whole lot less money they get to be in housing, a member of the community and a much higher quality of life. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so it’s relationship-based and we help them build well-being in their life.”

The discussion took place as Austin is shifting its operations at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, so that more case management is provided to move people into housing rather than having them languish on the street with no plan to help them. Talk of that shift gradually turned to the likely eventual need for the city to build another large shelter facility, with Newsom urging the real estate leaders to speak up in favor of such a move.

“At some point in the city we’re going to have to find the space to build a temporary shelter,” he said. “When that point comes there’s going to be backlash from the NIMBY crowd that doesn’t want that. Well, if you don’t want them under the bridge at Manchaca but you don’t want them in a shelter, what can you do? Because you’re gonna have one if you won’t have the other.”

Howard also used the panel to implore leaders in the room to be vocal about asking the city to provide budgetary and other resources to combat homelessness.

“It’s not always pretty, but these are real people with real problems,” she said. “I’m getting impatient and you guys need to demand that these resources materialize to actually house the homeless.”

To put a face on the interactions APD and other organizations have with homeless people around the city, Newsom told the audience about Miss Shirley, an elderly homeless woman who camps at Seventh and Nueces streets after leaving two different shelters to return to the street life that was more familiar to her.

“We get common complaints about the homeless and it’s so complicated, we could talk for three hours about it, especially the individuals,” he said. “You have 100 homeless people, then there are 100 reasons why (they’re homeless). What we need is something more compassionate and concrete.”

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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